Monday, October 12, 2009

Recommended Reading: Anything by David Carr

By Justine Roberts

I started reading David Carr while working on a community needs assessment for a library interested in adding a children’s museum to its core set of services. In thinking about the overlap between libraries and museums Carr’s perspective is unique and immensely valuable. I don’t know which came first - his nuanced understanding of libraries as centers of learning (compared with book repositories) or his insights into the needs of library users as learners reaching out at a critical juncture for resources and tools to help them move forward in their lives. The two ideas are intertwined in his work and Carr has written movingly about their implications for library practice, and library workers.

Early on, Carr recognized that libraries and museums shared some key characteristics that allowed lessons learned in one domain to serve as a useful lens for the other. As early as 1996 Carr was writing about the opportunities for libraries and museums to collaborate. Carr is intensely aware that libraries and museums are service-oriented, and he has a finely tuned understanding of how complex their users are and of the challenges this poses for the people working in them. In his writing Carr investigates the role of librarians as mediators helping learners successfully access the tools and information they need. He has extended this same critique to museum professionals.

Long before talk of web 2.0 and visitor-collaborations, Carr challenged museums to make more room for visitors: to ask questions, build bridges of understanding, and find their own uses for the collections and exhibits. In a talk he gave in 1998, reprinted in Museum News March/April 1999, Carr described his vision for museums as places designed to support visitors’ questions. He said:
“Questions always lead thinking. We find our way by questions, we found our way into things, and we find ourselves in things, all by asking what no one else can ask. The idea of helping people to ask the questions that only they can ask is at the heart of what can happen in a cultural institution: here people become more clearly the people they are capable of becoming, the people they were meant to be, by asking their own questions. And they do that with the museum’s help, and with the help of the objects they find in the museum, because in every object. . . something invisible is moving, inviting, provoking, leading the mind, leading the learner on.”
This vision still applies today. Allowing visitors to ask questions in an authentic (rather than rhetorical) way is at the heart of many recent more experimental exhibit techniques and strategies. And the behaviors associated with inquiry-based learning – including, in part, trial and error, experimentation, peer-to-peer learning, and conversation among visitor groups - seems to be increasingly at the center of our clients’ concerns as they work to realize their goal of serving as critically necessary resources for their local communities.

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